It turns out both of Michael Avenatti’s court cases involve high-profile basketball players. Accused in one of trying to extort millions of dollars from Nike, he claimed to have damaging information on Zion Williamson, among others. Thursday brought news that his other case includes allegations that he embezzled most of the money from a $2.75 million payment made by Heat center Hassan Whiteside.
The majority of that amount was meant for Alexis Gardner, a former girlfriend of Whiteside’s who hired Avenatti to represent her in a $3 million settlement of a potential lawsuit following the end of their romantic relationship. In a court filing this month, California prosecutors claimed that the high-profile attorney lied to Gardner about receiving the money and used $2.5 million of it to pay for his share of a private jet.
The filing, which detailed Avenatti’s efforts to defraud five clients of millions of dollars over several years, referred to Whiteside and Gardner as, respectively, “Individual 1” and “Client 2.” In a joint statement provided Thursday to the Los Angeles Times, they said it was “unfortunate that something that was meant to be kept private between us is now being publicly reported.”
“We entered into a mutually agreed upon settlement more than two years ago following the end of our relationship; a settlement that reflected Alexis’ investment of time and support over a number of years as Hassan pursued a career in the NBA,” Whiteside and Gardner said in their statement, which was released by Whiteside’s agent. “ … We have both moved on amicably and wish nothing but the best for each other.”
Avenatti, 48, denied to the L.A. Times that he had done anything improper, saying in an email, “No monies were ever embezzled from anyone and I look forward to all of the relevant documents and facts being presented at trial.”
He added that “the clients complaining are a very small fraction of the thousands of clients I have serviced over my nearly 20 year career.”
One former client, in particular, helped rocket Avenatti to fame as a prominent critic of President Trump. He was representing adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who wanted to nullify a nondisclosure agreement she signed in 2016 to hide an affair she said she had with Trump several years previously, but she and Avenatti parted ways last month.
He used his representation of Daniels to gain visibility as a frequent guest on cable news shows, and even contemplated his own run for the presidency. Avenatti will now likely be more focused on emerging unscathed from the charges filed against him by prosecutors based in California and New York, the latter of whom have accused him of trying to extort Nike.
Avenatti was said to have threatened the sports-apparel giant with holding a news conference on the eve of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament last month, asserting that Nike had engaged in illicit attempts to direct top high school recruits to college partners. He wanted millions of dollars from Nike, prosecutors said, either to put him on its payroll or simply to buy his silence, but instead the company alerted the FBI.
Avenatti subsequently tweeted — before he made his account private on Thursday — that he “never intended to extort” Nike, but he went on to assert that it made payments to the families of Williamson, the Duke superstar expected to go No. 1 overall in this year’s NBA draft; Bol Bol, an Oregon player also billed as a possible top draft selection; and Deandre Ayton, last year’s No. 1 overall pick by the Phoenix Suns out of Arizona.
The January payment to Avenatti from Whiteside was meant to include approximately $1 million for the lawyer, plus expenses and other costs, as part of his agreed-upon share of the settlement, with Gardner set to receive a final payment of $250,000 on or around November 2020. However, according to prosecutors,Avenatti “falsely represented” to her that the formal arrangement called for Whiteside to make an initial lump-sum payment that would only cover his end, followed by 96 monthly payments to Gardner over the next eight years.
Rather than alert Gardner immediately to the money she had coming to her, as required by California law, Avenatti was accused of concealing his receipt of the $2.75 million and transferring almost all of it to an attorney trust account for another law firm and then on to the company selling the private jet. Avenatti allegedly transferred the remaining amount to an account he controlled and proceeded to make 11 payments to Gardner, totaling $194,000, between March 2017 and June 2018.
After he stopped making those payments, prosecutors said, Avenatti “falsely represented” to Gardner last month that Whiteside “was not complying with the settlement agreement,” and that she would “soon be receiving a payment” from the 29-year-old NBA player to make up for the monthly allotments.
Avenatti told the Times that Gardner received from him “far more than $194,000 and we will prove it at trial.” He added, “We paid living expenses and other expenses for a long period of time as well.”
In a 36-count indictment, California authorities alleged that Avenatti ran a similar scheme with other clients, including a paraplegic man whose $4 million settlement from Los Angeles County was diverted to the lawyer’s personal use, such as a racing-car team he owned. According to the Times, if convicted on all charges in both the California and New York cases, Avenatti would face a maximum of 382 years in prison.
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